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Published: June 26th 2012
It has been many months since I left South Africa, but my thoughts often drift back...
End of October, after two months in the company of the four cheetah cubs, it was time to say good-bye. I cannot describe the love I felt for these gentle and affectionate animals and I still miss them now. I had started to take the constant presence of cheetahs in my life for granted and it was not until my departure that I realized how lucky and privileged I had been.
The parting was only made bearable by the prospect of my upcoming road trip and the reunion with my cousin Dorothee, who I hadn’t seen for many years. So one sunny spring morning I set off to explore more of South Africa. My journey would take me from Cape Town to Cape Point, on to the N2 to Knysna and Addo Elephant Park then up into the mountains to Hogsback and from there to the Drakensberge.
I had visited Cape Town many years ago, when apartheid was still a sad reality. Then it was a dull, subdued place and I still remember the shame I felt at the time when I
found myself sitting on a bench inscribed “net vir blankes” – “for whites only”. Thankfully things have changed and Cape Town is unrecognisable - a vibrant, progressive and liberal city and a pleasure to explore.
I drove on to Cape Point, the peninsula stretching south of Cape Town to the Cape of Good Hope. I visited seal island and befriended an enormous tame seal, had lunch in the lovely fishing port of Simonstown, felt sorry for the few penguins at Boulders Beach (too many tourists, too much noise...), and braved the gales at the Cape of Good Hope, contemplating the many lives lost there in ship wrecks.
The stretch between the Western Cape and Port Elizabeth is better known as the Garden Route and it is renowned for its beauty. I had been looking forward to this part of my journey and I did savour the splendour of its countryside and the quirkiness of its towns with their colourful wooden houses, more reminiscent of America’s East Coast than of Sub-Saharan Africa. But this attractiveness comes at a cost, and although bumper to bumper tourist traffic was probably to be expected I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of
disappointment. So for my return journey I chose another path – Route 62. With empty roads and sweeping landscapes it couldn’t have been more different from the Garden Route. The lush green forests, dramatic gorges cut by mighty rivers and majestic mountains of the former were replaced by luminous savannahs, bordered at the horizon by pastel coloured hills; serenely beautiful and far removed from the hustle of tourists and pleasure seekers. It reminded me of Namibia and when I am honest I preferred it to the “other side”.
No visit to sub Saharan Africa can be complete without wildlife watching and Addo was the only game park accessible to me on this trip. Of course you cannot in any way compare this little reserve with the likes of Amboseli or Etoscha, but driving along dirt roads into the bush through secret valleys awash with flowers and heavy with their scent, watching eighty well fed, happy looking elephants play in a water hole, catching a glimpse of a shy black rhino, or just listening to the sounds of the African bush at night was magical and well worth the visit.
From Addo I ventured into the mountains to a
tiny village called Hogsback. This part of South Africa is often associated with Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, not least because Tolkien was born in nearby Bloemfontein and probably also because the mountains and the often mist-clouded forests could have come straight out of the pages of his books. And I must admit that strolling through this enchanted landscape I half expected to stumble across Frodo or one of his elven friends. However Tolkien left South Africa at the age of three and never returned, so the legend that he based his descriptions of some of the landscapes in his novels on this area is probably just that – a legend.
My cousin and her husband farm near the small town of Maclear in the foothills of the Drakensberge. It seems a million miles away from the cosmopolitan vibe of Cape Town or the wealthy old-world charm of Stellenbosch. Life here is still to a large extent dictated by the weather, and the countryside has a rough, untamed beauty in which their farm house nestles like a cosy oasis. It was wonderful to spend time with my family. I know it sounds like a cliché when I say that,
although we hadn’t seen each other for the best part of twenty years it felt as if we had never been apart; but that’s exactly how it was, and the old adage that blood is thicker than water proved itself true once again.
One day Dorothee suggested I should join her in an event organised by the local animal care centre. She is a founder member of MAC (Maclear Animal Care), whose mission it is to raise local animal welfare standards and to facilitate access to primary animal health care services by local communities. Every few months they arrange sterilisation sessions for the pets of the local township residents. Many of the children there are AIDS orphans and sadly their only friends are often their dogs. Thankfully the government supports these kids but there is no money left for the animals. Before, without immunisations and sterilisations of the pets, the situation could easily get out of hand. MAC has managed to recruit vets who volunteer to give up their spare time to sterilise and immunise animals at certain weekends of the year. One of those weekends was coming up while I was there and of course I didn’t need
much persuading to join in. Before I knew it I found myself with a syringe in hand, ready to immunise terrified dogs. I’ve injected plenty of humans in the past but never animals and it took some getting used to... Row after row of anxious dogs accompanied by their stern young owners filled the corridors of the school where the event took place. Only the eyes of the boys betrayed their love and worry for their furry friends. In one particularly sad incident one of the dogs, an over-excited puppy, died during the operation, most likely due to an underlying heart condition. When my cousin told the young owner what had happened he just sat there stony-faced and silent. Eventually my cousin gave the boy a hug and that’s when he broke down and cried inconsolably. It was heart breaking. Thankfully a few days later he was presented with a new puppy – thanks to MAC.
PS: That weekend 100 dogs (and 3 cats) were sterilised. MAC also rescues and re-homes abandoned animals and they have far reaching goals regarding on-going improvement of animal welfare in the area. They are entirely dependent on donations and their details can be
found on the internet and on facebook.
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